Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal both won tournaments on the same weekend for just the third time in their entwined careers this weekend, and they did it with flair that reminded many of the days when they alone dominated the tennis headlines.
Federer produced a masterful win over top-ranked Novak Djokovic in Dubai, while Nadal bagged his first title of the year in Buenos Aires, at the expense of his former PlayStation buddy and local favorite, Juan Monaco.
It was a historic win for each of them, as Federer surpassed the 9,000-ace mark during the week, and Nadal’s win was the 65th of his career -- good for No. 5 on the all-time list led by Jimmy Connors (109).
If you had to pick the more impressive performance, the clear choice is Federer’s. Taking advantage of the fast court in Dubai (it is, after all, Swiss native Federer’s home-away-from-home court), Federer built upon his slim head-to-head lead over the Serbian star (20-17). It’s a significant stat for his legacy, given that Nadal pulled away in his own rivalry with Federer some time ago. Now ranked No. 4, Nadal has an overwhelming 23-10 advantage over No. 2 Federer.
It has been a somewhat stressful start to 2015 for both Federer and Nadal. Although Federer won his first tournament of the year (Brisbane), the 33-year-old icon was speared by ATP No. 46 Andreas Seppi in the third round at the Australian Open.
In his previous Grand Slam appearance, Federer was stopped in the semifinals of the US Open by the eventual champ, first-time Grand Slam finalist Marin Cilic. Federer may or may not have felt he had a point to prove in Dubai, but it’s indisputable that he did have a brilliant game plan. He attacked Djokovic freely and brought points to a swift ending, neutralizing Djokovic’s formidable rallying skills.
Federer kept the points short and successfully avoided engaging in rallies that had him pinned back and hitting backhands. Djokovic managed to return serve to Federer’s backhand on just 10 occasions, winning nine of those points. The rest of the time, Federer kept him under pressure and unable to find the weak link in Federer’s game. The result: 6-3, 7-5, Federer.
True, Djokovic had trouble finding his A-game. But Federer also made sure that one-handed backhand remained out of reach with an expert display of guileful serving. Fittingly, Federer cracked the historic 9,000th ace of his career during this final, a feat that leaves him fourth on the list that also includes Andy Roddick, Goran Ivanisevic and Ivo Karlovic. It’s hard to think of three other guys with whom Federer would have less in common, and against whom he’s a combined 35-4. It’s a tribute to Federer’s great versatility.
Being Roger Federer, he knew exactly which serve it was, too: "I think I remember which one it was because I was even counting a little bit,” he sheepishly admitted. "I think it was one of the swinger wides … maybe. I'm not sure. But I think it happened in the second set at some point.”
OK, it’s a lot of “maybes.” It’s also undeniably a lot of aces.
Nadal’s week was not quite as epic. Like Federer, he was on his preferred surface (red clay). If anything, he was in even greater need of making a statement. In three previous tournaments this year, Nadal hadn’t beaten a player ranked higher than No. 15 Kevin Anderson. He didn’t take down one in Buenos Aires, either. The highest-ranking player he defeated was No. 59 Federico Delbonis.
Being Rafael Nadal, he looked as if he had just won another title at Roland Garros after he throttled No. 60 Monaco without ever facing a break point, 6-4, 6-1. Nadal’s game may have been AWOL these past months, but his schoolboyish enthusiasm remains intact.
Despite the fact that this was a mere ATP 250 (Dubai is a 500), Nadal also penetrated deeper into the history books with the win. His 65th career title broke a deadlock with a pair of worthy champs: Pete Sampras and Bjorn Borg.
Fourteen of those titles Nadal has accumulated are Grand Slam championships. At age 28, he still has time to catch his old frenemy in Federer, the all-time leader with 17 major titles. But it has looked more and more like an uphill battle for Nadal, who has managed to bag just one major (at Roland Garros) since his win over Djokovic in the 2013 US Open. And that’s just where Federer could be of great value to him.
When Nadal began to assert his superiority over Federer, there was much a talk about how their games match up to Nadal’s favor, and about how Nadal was “in Roger’s head.” While Djokovic prevailed over Federer in their last Grand Slam meeting (Wimbledon 2014), Federer is now 4-2 against Djokovic in their most recent clashes.
If Federer takes a cue from his nemesis and manages to insert himself in Djokovic’s frontal lobe, Nadal’s hunt for major titles could become that much easier. Nadal still leads Djokovic 23-19, but Djokovic has won four of the past five.
Djokovic was once the third wheel in the Federer-Nadal rivalry. Federer might find himself thrust into that role, enabling Nadal’s march to glory.